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Qing art
Qing art of the reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzhen and Qianlong Emperors

Article added on January 31, 2006
  
Despite the fact that the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek evacuated some of the most valuable Chinese art treasures to Taiwan in the 1930s, where they are on display at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, there is still an invaluable collection of over one million artefacts left at the Palace Museum, Beijing, from which the London exhibition China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 draws 95% of its 400 exhibits.

The museum was established on the site of the Imperial Palace in Beijing, built in 1420 and also known as the Forbidden City. The holdings of the museum comprise the former imperial collections of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

The art of the Qing emperors Kangxi, Yongzhen and Qianlong is on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until April 17, 2006. It is the most comprehensive exhibition ever held in the UK dedicated to court art. Among the 400 exhibits are 130 paintings, an unprecedented number loaned by the Palace Museum, Beijing.

The exhibition focuses on the reigns of the artistically most important emperors of the Qing dynasty, Kangxi (1662-1722), his son Yongzheng (1723-1735) and his grandson Qianlong (1736-1795). The Kangxi emperor consolidated the Qing state militarily and politically. He adapted his administration to the Confucian traditions of his dominant subjects over whom he ruled for over 60 years, the full cycle of the Chinese calendar. In addition, he was a master of Han Chinese culture, including calligraphy, as well as an interlocutor of the Westerners who came to and worked at his imperial court. The Kangxi Emperor commissioned one of the world's largest ever book projects, an encyclopaedia, as well as a major dictionary, an anthology of poems from the Tang dynasty (618-907) and large academic compilations.

Kangxi's son Yinzhen, who became the Yongzheng Emperor in 1723, was renowned as a great administrator who implemented fiscal and administrative reforms. His short reign is famous for the production of refined decorative arts in the palace workshops. The Qianlong Emperor finally assembled the largest art collection in history and is the author of some 30,000 poems. In addition to antiquities and precious objects he collected, the exhibition shows prized examples of his own calligraphy.

The arts of the Qing court - painting, silk weaving, porcelain, jade, bronzes and lacquer - were used by the Qing Emperors - themselves ethnically Manchu - to express and maintain their command of the diverse territories they ruled, from the Mongolian steppes and deserts of the north to the gardens and rice fields of the semi-tropical south.

The emperors represented themselves at the centre of the universe in the eyes of their courtiers and subjects: as rulers, patrons of the arts and conquerors, as the creators of a great state, as ardent Buddhists and as eminent figures within China's ancient scholarly traditions.

Logically, the exhibition begins with formal ritual portraits of the three emperors, depicted on dragon thrones and dressed in ceremonial robes of embroidered yellow silk. Court robes worn by the emperors, a carved lacquer throne and screen, incense burners and metalwork cranes are arranged in a formal court setting typical for the Qing dynasty; cranes are the symbols of long life and the word for "crane" is a homonym for the word for "harmonious".

As the ones of previous dynasties, images of the Qing rulers were intended to be seen by only a small group of the elite. Before the 20th century, it was both anathema and criminally punishable for commoners to own images of current or former rulers.

Hanging scrolls, handscrolls and albums show imperial palaces, hunting exhibitions to the north, and the long journeys undertaken by the Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors to Southern China. Two large scrolls are examples from large sets that record visits to the Yangtse region, whose purpose was to exert control of the south. Two further scrolls depict the emperors' birthday celebrations and a set of six paintings illustrates the emperors' privates lives.

Both the Kangxi and the Qianlong Emperors took an active interest in their troops and generals. Displays of military prowess were an essential part of court life. Fine armor, embroidered saddles, a sedan chair and paintings of the rulers as fearless riders in military garb illustrate this. The colored armor of the imperial military, known as "the eight banners", is on display too.

Shamanism was the Manchus original belief-system. It was practised alongside Buddhism and Confucian court ritual. A gallery devoted to art and religion has as its centerpiece a two-meter-high pagoda; also on display are a recreated altar set-up as well as paraphernalia for religious ceremonies.

Imperial China had little direct contact with the West during the reign of this three Qing emperors. However, the rulers were interested in Western technical expertise. A gallery of paintings, clocks and decorative arts shows Chinese curiosity with foreign expertise and innovation. This gallery explores the courtly relations with Jesuits, who went to China to seek converts to Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries.

One of the most famous Jesuits was the court artist Lang Shining, known by his Western name of Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). His paintings depicting nature in a detailed, naturalistic manner are one of the exhibition's highlights. The fusion of Chinese and European painting styles was a key factor in defining the Qing court painting style.

However, the Kangxi Emperors initial toleration of the Jesuits was eroded by papal envoys' insistence on overall papal authority over Chinese Catholics; the Yongzhen Emperor banned Christianity altogether, as did his son, the Qianlong Emperor.

The exhibition shows as never before testimonials of the Chinese emperors private lives.

Get the exhibition catalogue China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.


Rectangular lidded box imitating a Japanese lacquer box decorated in gold with fruits on a black ground and painted as if wrapped in a cloth. Yongzheng period, made at the Qing court. Lacquered wood, colored and guilded, 12.4 x 21.8 x 11.4 cm. Photo © National Palace Museum, Beijing.






China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795. Thames & Hudson, 2005, 496 p. The catalogue contains color reproductions and scholarly entries for all exhibits. "The essays explore the many fascinating themes that link the artistic and cultural treasures, and describe the complex rituals, intriguing personalities and vivid colours of the society that created them." Get the catalogue from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. Catalogue cover: a hanging scroll by Lang Shining (Giuseppe Castiglione), Spring's Peaceful Messages, c. 1736. Ink and color on silk, 68.8 x 40.6 cm. Photo © National Palace Museum, Beijing.


Anonymous court artist, Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress, late Kangxi period (1662-1722). Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 278.5 x 143 cm. The exhibition also showcases the Qianlong Emperor's yellow dragon robe (longpao). During the Qing dynasty, large numbers of male state officials wore this style of silk garment. Photo © National Palace Museum, Beijing.


The Nine Elders of Huichang, inscribed by the Qianlong Emperor. Qianlong period (1736-1795). Nephrite jade boulder, height 114.5 cm. This exhibit illustrates the Chinese conception of mountains as places of contemplation, imagination and metaphor. Photo © National Palace Museum, Beijing.

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